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Alumni Spotlight: Colin Komar

Briefly, describe your career path.

I completed a Bachelor's of Science degree in Physics from Illinois Wesleyan University in May 2008. Then, I went on to graduate school at West Virginia University, and joined the research group of Dr. Paul Cassak in the summer of 2009. I

Colin Komar

completed a Master's of Science degree in Physics in December 2010, and completed a Ph.D. in Physics in May 2015 at WVU under the direction of Dr. Paul Cassak. I’m now a postdoctoral researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center sponsored by Dr. Alex Glocer.

Describe the work you do as researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

I am currently researching different space physics phenomena at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I perform large-scale supercomputer simulations of Earth’s near-earth space environment to understand the complicated interaction between Earth’s magnetic field and hot, ionized gasses, or plasma, which constantly stream outward from the sun.

My first research project is a continuation of my Ph.D. dissertation, which seeks to understand the magnetic interaction that allows solar plasma to enter into near-Earth space. This project is relevant to NASA’s recently launched Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission. 

My second project is a direct consequence from this interaction, which seeks to understand the dynamics of this plasma once it is trapped in Earth’s magnetic field.  This second project is related to NASA’s Van Allen Probes mission. 

What are you passionate about in your work?

I am passionate about the challenging aspect of my work and being able to better understand the space environment of Earth. It is a lot of fun to wake up every day and confront the challenge of analyzing the simulation results to make sense of the physical phenomena we are modeling. Besides, space is cool!

Where is your career headed?

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher, a fancy term for “recent graduate.” I am continuing my professional education, which is a modern apprenticeship where I continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Notable differences from being a graduate student is that I have the freedom to pursue my own research interests, learn how to write proposals, and serve on proposal panels, which are all important skill to have to be a successful professional researcher.

A typical postdoctoral term lasts 2-3 years and once I complete my tenure I hope to obtain a permanent research position. At least for the foreseeable future, I will continue to be a contractor here at NASA GSFC. However, I am pretty open to being either a research professor or permanent research staff at a government lab, such as NASA, or elsewhere. 

 How has your Eberly College experience helped shape your success?

I was always amazed at the support provided by the Eberly College and the WVU Physics department as a whole. Eberly has a program that provides travel assistance for graduate students to present their work at conferences. The Physics department had a similar support structure, which is instrumental for all graduate students and early career scientists to obtain the broad exposure of their work.  

More importantly, I have always been amazed at the fantastic support the faculty and staff provided at such a large institution.

 How are you a game changer? Or, how are you making a positive impact in the world?

Analyzing the space environment of Earth can affect our technological society in some very profound ways. For example, once the solar plasma interacts with Earth’s magnetic field and becomes trapped it can cause some serious damage to satellites in orbit around Earth and disrupt telecommunication signals (cell phones, bank transfers, etc.). Even worse is that we could have direct loss of the satellite. Another effect is that very strong solar storms can release vast quantities of plasma into near-Earth space, which can drive such strong currents in space that after a long chain of events generate currents that can disrupt/destroy the electric grid on Earth’s surface.

In short, the research projects I am working on seek to model these complicated interactions with the long-term goal of being able to predict potential impacts on the near-Earth space environment from solar activity. My research is just one small component of the larger space physics field which seeks to understand space weather, i.e., the likelihood that current solar conditions could impact Earth’s space environment. Just like predicting hurricanes and other weather patterns on Earth, we want to predict these solar storms in order to minimize their impacts on Earth.

What is the most interesting thing that’s happened to you since graduating?

I was selected to join an international collaboration as a young scientist in late 2015.  The team met in March 2016 in Bern, Switzerland and we will reconvene in Switzerland in March 2017.

Also, winning the 2016 BASU United States Early Career Award for Research Excellence in Sun-Earth Systems, by the American Geophysical Union has been very interesting! ;-) 

Your favorite WVU memory?

This is kind of tough since there are so many good ones to choose from. I would probably have to say I really enjoyed meeting astronaut Mike Fincke when he visited WVU in September 2013. I had the opportunity to speak with him after his talk, where we discussed my research as a space scientist and I even had the opportunity to take a few pictures with him.

How do you support and participate in the department of Physics and Astronomy at WVU now?

I continue to collaborate with Paul Cassak to pursue the line of research we have done over the last several years. I have also provided feedback for classes offered in the Physics department to help improve them.

What advice would you give a student interested in working at NASA?

I would advise them to seek an internship here. Since coming here, I have found out there are many ways for students at all levels to intern/visit here. (I am quite jealous since I was unaware of such opportunities prior to me coming here…) NASA has an official internship program for high schoolers and undergraduates while many graduate students have come here to work with collaborators. Honestly, the best way to get your foot in the door here is to start with these programs and begin developing those professional relationships.

You recently were awarded the 2016 BASU United States Early Career Award for Research Excellence in Sun-Earth Systems, by the American Geophysical Union. What does it feel like to be recognized so early in your career for your contributions to scientific research?

To be honest, I was quite surprised that I was even nominated for the award! The honor of receiving this award is humbling to know that the work we have been doing is of importance to other scientists, the nation, and the world.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I would be remiss if I did not recognize all the tremendous support I received throughout my time at WVU and beyond. I am grateful for the love and support of my wife, Kathryn, that she provided me in graduate school and continues to do so.

I also wanted to thank my advisor, Paul Cassak, who showed tremendous patience with me as we performed the exciting research, which is being recognized as part of this award.

Finally, I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Physics and Astronomy department for their support throughout the early stages of my scientific career.